For more than 70 years, Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy Company was associated with nothing but pleasure for native Washingtonians and visitors to the nation’s capital. But behind the iconic business’s happy facade lay elaborate schemes, a crushing bankruptcy, two million dollars of missing cash, and a tragic suicide. As the last Gifford heir unfolds his story with remarkable immediacy and candor, he reveals the byzantine betrayals and intrigue rooted in the company from its modest beginnings—dark influences that would ultimately destroy the legendary Gifford business and its troubled founding family.
Interview with Andrew Gifford
by Sarah Baker
For generations, area families have associated the Gifford name with the nostalgia of visiting ice cream parlors and making memories against a backdrop of candy-covered walls. For Andrew Gifford, however, the name represents something different. Andrew is the last of the ice cream Giffords, who for years were the proprietors of local landmark Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy. Being a part of one of DC’s most well-known families did not make for a sweet upbringing for Gifford, however, whose life has been shaped by the trauma of familial abuse, neglect and unimaginable pain from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare disorder that is often called “the suicide disease.”
After years of searching for relief, Andrew has overcome his condition and used his remarkable perseverance to head an independent publishing company. In 1998 he created Santa Fe Press, which gives unknown and independent authors a platform from which to share their work. Gifford has also used the family history as the foundation for his upcoming book, We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire. A trailer for the book can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chz75mwJWoc.
More information about Andrew and Santa Fe Press, go to:
Was it difficult to spill the family secrets?
Actually, I didn’t really know or understand the full extent of the secrets until recently. As a child, I was always an afterthought. The accidental child born to two troubled parents who barely knew I was in the room. My dad vanished without a trace when I was 10, and my mother fell into a black hole of insanity that would ultimately kill her. The rest of my family kept everything at arm’s length, or were locked in their own crazy loops. Then I spent my early adulthood in the grips of a debilitating nerve disease and barely cared about the outside world, let alone my family. I didn’t really stop and look and try to decode what happened until I was about 31, at which point I approached “family secrets” in a more journalistic way. Like sifting through stories about strangers. That said, writing the book gave me nightmares as I got deeper and deeper into the telling of these secrets. I went from feeling like a stranger to my family’s secrets, to being horrified and disgusted as the past slowly sunk back in, to a sort of cathartic fascination with the story. It’s been a strange journey.
How do supporters of the family react when they learn their are skeletons in the closet?
There’s nobody left. My parents and grandparents are all dead. My paternal grandfather ostracized his entire family in 1949 – that was the last they heard from him. So I’ve never had a sense of family. I never really understood what a family was outside of watching the seemingly better worlds my friends grew up in. There’s a scattering of cousins on the Gifford side and I think they’re not surprised by this – the trouble there goes back, again, to ’49. The problems were obvious then, so it’s no surprise to them that the insanity deepened. My mother’s siblings were, as I was, tortured by her – when my aunt was six years old, my mother held her by her ankles off the Ohio Bridge in Parkersburg, WV. The figurative skeletons, in mom’s case, were always out of the closet and scattered across the floor. And dad, of course, was an enigma who’s confounded police, lawyers, reporters, family, and employees. And me.
What was the toughest thing about growing up in the Gifford family?
Probably the relentless abuse and neglect! I open the book with a story of how my parents pretended our motorboat, while on holiday at a lake, was broken and we were about to get sucked under a dam. Mom prided herself on pranks like this, with dad as her accomplice whenever he was around. They’d tease me until I cried and then mom would turn her diamond rings around and spank me until I bled. I think children of abuse get used to this “other normal,” but pairing it with psychological abuse was really tough for me. Especially as an awkward only child with a stutter. I never really connected with friends. Teachers and other authority figures didn’t seem to give a damn. I grew up feeling so alone, so angry, so betrayed by everyone around me, that those same feelings are hard to shake today.
Where do you go for ice cream these days? Others have used the Gifford name for their stores. Would you set foot in them? Why or why not?
I don’t go for ice cream. Another prank of mom’s was to convince me that she and dad were poisoning the ice cream. As an adult, I dismissed this as yet more craziness… But, when I started interviewing people for the book, I eventually found myself compiling a list of foreign objects folks had found in the ice cream during dad’s time as president of the company. My publisher actually asked me to edit much of the ice cream tampering out of the book because it was so horrific. So, of course, that influences my own taste for ice cream. With every bite, I worry that I’m eating crushed glass, mercury…or worse.
The reboot attempts bother me. They’ve bothered me since they started in 1989, and there are about three or four reboot attempts going on right now. In 2010 (the last time Gifford’s exploded dramatically in the courts and across the local section of the paper) the initial dispute was that the stores had been selling Hood’s Ice Cream – a generic ice cream served at institutions. Yet people were still paying top dollar for a scoop. So these people are just cashing in on the name and the nostalgia. One of the rebooters once told me to my face: “It doesn’t matter what’s in the cup, people will pay me anything if I say it’s original Gifford’s Swiss chocolate sauce.” That’s the attitude steering Gifford’s today.
How long did it take to write We All Scream? What was the hardest part about getting your thoughts onto the page?
I started writing the book in earnest in late 2013 when there was an attempt to make a documentary about my father. The filmmakers gave up because there were just so many tangled and bizarre questions… But those questions simply begged to be researched. A book was a better medium for what turned out to be a detective story on the trail of my parents. I finished the first draft in February of 2015.
I’ve run a publishing company for 20 years (www.sfwp.com), so getting thoughts onto the page was actually pretty easy. I came at writing from the clinical publisher’s perspective – know your audience, know your story, listen to your editor.
What is one thing about the family that didn’t make it into the book that people would find interesting?
I’m fairly certain that mom was running a considerably large and active drug cartel out of the Bethesda Naval Hospital (where she worked as a secretary). Lacking any proof, of course, means that I couldn’t expand on that story and we thought it best to drop it. It gets mentioned in passing in the final book, but I leave that thread hanging.
I also, in early drafts, spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out whether or not my grandfather and, later, my dad were deeply involved in intelligence while they were in the army (WWI and Vietnam, respectively), and if those ties extended beyond their terms of service (which would explain many of dad’s actions). I was actually (gently, politely) warned by certain parties to stop pursuing that line of questioning where dad was concerned. Again, this gets a little bit of lip service in the final book, but I quickly move on.